Watch and be amazed.
With the success of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, interest in the martial arts has seen a resurgence for Western audiences. Shaolin: Wheel of Life is a live stage production showcasing the almost supernatural abilities of China's Shaolin monks. It is the Shaolin who first created Kung-Fu based on their spiritual beliefs and their observations of animal movements.
Facts of the Case
Shaolin: Wheel of Life is part martial arts exhibition and part historical pantomime. The first part of the program tells one of the oldest legends of the Shaolin, the story of their role in defending China from an invading force. After defeating the invaders, the Emperor ordered that the Shaolin should stay on as his permanent imperial guard. The monks refused, returning to their quiet, spiritual life. The Emperor slaughtered the monks for their defiance. Only five of the Shaolin survived, and went on to be known as The Five Ancestors of the modern order.
After this historical drama is played out, the monks turn to a number of solo exhibitions. The feats of skill and strength involved are amazing, and show the intense physical and mental discipline instilled in these men from the age of four. We see one monk do a handstand balanced solely on his index fingers. Another monk is hoisted, spread-eagled, above a group of his brothers and suspended on the points of five sharp spears. Another monk allows his comrades to break bamboo poles across his head and lower back. Another group of monks take turns breaking iron bars over their heads. Add to these feats some incredible shows of acrobatic skill, both unarmed and with a variety of weapons, and we have a spectacular show that will amaze and astound the viewer.
The important thing to remember here is that, unlike in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or most Hong Kong action flicks, there is no trickery involved. These incredibly disciplined monks do all their own stunts, so to speak, without the aid of any ridiculous "Wire-Fu" or camera tricks. Seeing these feats in a live stage performance is in its own way far more impressive than anything that has been seen in a feature film.
The performances in Shaolin: Wheel of Life are spellbinding. Whether it is the simple, spare drama of the historical legend or the sequence of individual exhibitions, the superhuman feats shown on this DVD will have the viewer riveted to the screen for the entire running time. One simply can't imagine what the human body and mind can be trained to do. Simple yet effective set design and a well-written musical score add to the amazing demonstration of skill. The inclusion of the Shaolin historical lesson was important as well, since it elevates this program from just a series of show-offish martial arts moves to a real celebration of the Shaolin and their rich history.
The DVD from Universal is an excellent vehicle for this performance. Bear in mind that this is a live performance, and all the variables in such an undertaking are hard to control. However, in spite of all the difficulties, the picture quality here is excellent. In fact, perhaps the most flaws appear in the parts of the presentation that were not shot live on stage. There is an opening segment with scenes of the Shaolin monastery in China that show some noticeable shimmering and a bit of pixelation. As is so often the case with DVD, these problems are most evident in blue skies. In the stage sequences, the picture is remarkably sharp and clear with few digital defects. The picture is a bit grainy or muddy at times, but this appears to me to be more a problem with shooting a live performance than a DVD issue. The only real problem I noted was a bit of what appeared to be edge enhancement from time to time, but even this was not severe. Colors are faithfully rendered for the most part, but are distorted or washed out from time to time by variations in the high-intensity stage lighting. Shaolin: Wheel of Life comes to us in an anamorphically enhanced transfer, in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so it should be just perfect for 16:9 televisions.
Audio on this disc is quite pleasant as well, especially considering the nature of the source material. The audio track is Dolby Digital 5.0, sort of an odd duck as audio mixes go. The musical score comes through nicely through all surround channels, as does some ambient crowd noise to make us feel like we are really there. The soundtrack is sharp and clean, and provides a surprising amount of bass punch.
Universal provides a nice collection of extra material on this disc, items that will help viewers better understand and appreciate the Shaolin and their history. First up is a documentary featurette entitled "Enter the Shaolin." It is quite lengthy at 46 minutes, and features the people responsible for making this production possible, both in China and in the West. It also pays a lot of attention to the monks themselves and their lives in the Shaolin monastery. The featurette covers everything from the first contact and negotiations with the monks to such details as composing the score and designing the costumes. Overall, it is a very informative addition to this DVD, and quite interesting.
Other extra features include a photo gallery illustrating 23 stances or positions in Shaolin Kung-Fu. There is also a lengthy section entitled "History of the Shaolin." This is a long series of text screens of information about the Shaolin and their history; it is a very well-done capsule history of the order and their ties to Kung-Fu.
Rounding out the extra content is a link to Universal's DVD newsletter, and DVD-ROM content that I was unable to view. There is also one of Universal's standard utterly pointless "Recommendations" sections with thumbnail pictures of the boxes of other Universal DVDs. Get a clue guys, this is hardly special and isn't much of a feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I thoroughly enjoyed this DVD, I did have a few nagging misgivings at the back of my mind. I wonder if the monks saw any conflict in using their special skills for commercial purposes and for creating a spectacle for Western audiences to gawk at. However, the material is presented in a way that is respectful of the monks, their way of life, and their amazing abilities, so these concerns are minimal.
Shaolin: Wheel of Life is fascinating and thrilling. The skill show by these men is simply amazing. Highly recommended.
Despite their mostly peaceful, spiritual way of life I get the distinct feeling these monks would kick my butt if I tried to convict them, so…not guilty!
Universal is acquitted as well for a very nice DVD presentation, good video and audio, and respectful of these monks and their way of life.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "Enter the Shaolin" Documentary Featurette
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